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Top 10

London’s Earliest Writing

London, England

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, December 12, 2016

Top Ten London Roman Tablet

 

The largest and most significant collection of Roman waxed writing tablets is providing an intriguing glimpse into life in early Roman London. More than 400 wooden tablets were unearthed by archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) during excavations at the site of the Bloomberg company’s new European headquarters. Roman London (called Londinium) was founded around A.D. 50, and the recovered texts, written by ordinary residents, record various names, as well as events and transactions that took place during the settlement’s first few decades.

 

Top Ten London Stylus SpatulaThe tablets, which began to be published in 2016, feature a once-popular method of Roman writing that involved using a pointed stylus to etch letters into a thin layer of wax that had been spread onto a small plank. Since tablets such as these were typically made of wood, they rarely survive. However, the Bloomberg excavation site is located along what used to be the Walbrook River. Most of the tablets discovered there were part of an ancient garbage dump that was used to fill in the wetlands to create buildable land during the Roman era. The muddy, oxygen-free conditions were instrumental in the preservation of the nearly 2,000-year-old tablets. Although the actual inscriptions in wax have long since disappeared, sometimes an overly aggressive scribe applied too much pressure and accidentally etched their writing into the wood beneath the wax.

 

“The collection is hugely significant,” says MOLA archaeologist Sophie Jackson, “because the tablets date to the first few years of London. They provide new insights into the people who lived, worked, and traded there and administered the new city, and what social, economic, and legal structures were in place.”

 

Thus far, 19 of the 405 tablets have been decoded through an exacting process that uses multidirectional photography and microscopic analysis. Among these are Britain’s oldest handwritten document and the earliest known reference to Londinium. Some texts appear to be legal records and contracts, while others are correspondence. And one tablet, which simply contains the alphabet, may have been part of a school lesson.

Angkor Urban Sprawl

Siem Reap Province, Cambodia

By NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN

Monday, December 12, 2016

Top Ten Cambodia Angkor Lidar

 

Researchers in northwestern Cambodia have carried out the largest airborne laser-scanning archaeological project to date. They used lidar to survey 900 square miles of the densely forested Angkor region, revealing centuries-old cities that once belonged to the vast Khmer Empire.

 

The kingdom’s provincial centers turn out to have many characteristics in common with Angkor, the metropolis surrounding the iconic Angkor Wat temple. All share a checkerboard of city blocks within a central moat, enormous reservoirs and canals used for water management, and mysterious mounds and “coiled” embankments built into the earth and seen at every eleventh- and twelfth-century temple site.

 

Archaeologist Damian Evans had spent a decade searching for evidence of an industrial city at a site east of Angkor called Preah Khan of Kompong Svay. When he looked at the new survey unobscured by vegetation, the three-mile-by-three-mile enclosed urban grid—the largest in Southeast Asia—appeared in plain sight. “It reveals this degree of complexity—the scope and scale at which human beings adapted the environment,” he says. “That’s what lidar illuminated so beautifully in Cambodia.”

World’s Oldest Dress

Tarkhan, Egypt

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, December 12, 2016

Top Ten Egypt Tarkhan DressIt’s almost impossible to imagine that an item of clothing worn thousands of years ago has survived to the present day. But the “Tarkhan Dress,” named for the town in Egypt where it was found in 1913, has endured—and has now been precisely dated using the latest radiocarbon dating technology. Researchers have determined that the very finely made linen apparel dates to between 3482 and 3103 B.C., making it the world’s oldest woven garment. Alice Stevenson, curator at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, says, “The dress has provided people with a real sense of the antiquity and longevity of the ancient Egyptian state and society.” To read more about research on the dress, go to “Dressing for the Ages,” from the May/June 2016 issue.

Regime Change in Athens

Athens, Greece

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, December 12, 2016

Top Ten Athens Necropolis

 

The end of the seventh century B.C. was a tumultuous period in Athenian history. Though once ruled by a king, the increasingly powerful region of Attica, home to Athens, had come to be presided over by aristocrats who maintained their hold on power through landownership and lifetime appointments. But as the century drew to a close, the political climate was primed for a new type of government—that of a single ruler, or tyrant. An evocative gravesite on the outskirts of Athens is a testament to this contentious moment in history.

 

Excavators at the Phaleron Delta necropolis have uncovered the remains of 80 men, shackled together at their wrists, lying in a mass grave. The most recent osteological studies have determined that the majority of the men were between 20 and 30 years old, although four were much younger, and that all 80 had been killed in the same manner—with a fatal blow to the head. The discovery of two small vases buried with them has allowed archaeologists to date the grave to the mid-to-late seventh century B.C., suggesting to project director Stella Chrysoulaki that the men were executed in the course of one of these attempts to gain political primacy. “For the first time,” Chrysoulaki says, “we can illustrate historical events that took place during the struggle between aristocrats in the seventh century and led, through a long process, to the establishment of a democratic regime in the city of Athens.”

Early Man Cave

Bruniquel, France

By DANIEL WEISS

Monday, December 12, 2016

Top Ten France Neanderthal Structures

 

A fifth of a mile inside Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France, a chamber holds several enigmatic ring-shaped structures made from whole and broken stalagmites. Radiocarbon dating of a burned bear bone found among them initially suggested they date to around 47,000 years ago. But this year, uranium-thorium dating that focused on the stalagmite tips and deposits that accumulated on them after they were broken found the structures were actually built around 176,000 years ago. Researchers concluded that since Neanderthals were the only humans living in the area at the time, they must have assembled them. “When we first got this date, I thought it was unbelievable,” says Jacques Jaubert, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux. “We had no idea that Neanderthals were operating so deep inside caves at this time.” While the structures also provide evidence of group collaboration, the reason they were built remains a mystery.

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